How Korean heritage and traditions shaped these two Asian-American brands

Jewelry company Nunchi was started by Korean-American business owner Jane Dua (Courtesy of Nunchi)
Jewelry company Nunchi was started by Korean-American business owner Jane Dua (Courtesy of Nunchi)

As May comes to a close, so does this year’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage (AAPI) Month, which celebrates the Asian cultural backgrounds that have shaped the United States.

Four years ago, Lois and Dave Cho began their journey as Korean-American winemakers in Oregon with their business, CHO Wines. Speaking to The Independent, Lois admitted that she and Dave had concerns about starting their brand, recalling their move down to California in March 2020, days before the Covid-19 lockdown began. They chose not to put their work on pause, instead opting to spend the year traveling to make wines and officially establish their brand. The small business owners’ success continued during the pandemic, as they later opened CHO Wines’ estate winery and tasting room, located in the wine country of Oregon, Willamette Valley.

When serving their signature wines, from sparkling wines to white ones, the couple imbues aspects of their Korean heritage. Lois explained that she wants CHO Wines’ tasting room and winery to stand out to customers, so she serves accompaniments that highlight her and her husband’s culture. “We bring out snacks in a traditional Korean brass bowl, like Korean macaroni snacks, instead of crackers. It’s something nostalgic from Dave’s upbringing,” she said. “Our non-alcoholic offerings are Milkus or tangerine sodas, and we give Asian candies to people when they leave. Just little things that are a connection to what’s normal to us, and it just makes it normal for other folks to come experience.”

Following a decade of experience working in the fine jewelry industry, Korean-American business owner Jane Dua also took her career to the next level during the pandemic. She started small, working with fashion jewelry from immigrant and family-owned suppliers in New York City, before turning that unused inventory into body chain wear and sunglass chains. Dua’s passion project then turned into something even bigger: her own jewelry company called NUNCHI. The business owner told The Independent that since establishing her company in 2021, “NUNCHI has and always will be dedicated to the quality of our products and creating a culture of equity surrounding them”.

NUNCHI’s fine jewelry remains true to its goal, with Dua’s Korean heritage and culture embedded into every single product she creates. Some of the brand’s bestsellers, from a chest of drawers to a nightstand to a silver ring, feature designs of lotus flowers, which are associated with beauty, purity, and enlightenment in Korean culture. “NUNCHI’s Customizable Lotus Flower Ring serves as an embodiment of my Korean American identity,” Dua explained. “While the ring’s lotus design represents my Korean heritage, it also serves as a catalyst for self-expression. I’ve absolutely loved seeing what designs our customers like incorporated into their ring and it’s been so powerful to hear what the ring means to them.”

While starting their brands amid the pandemic, Dua and Lois were painfully reminded of the discrimination towards Asian Americans in the country. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremision’s analysis of hate crimes in 16 of America’s largest cities found that Asian hate crimes increased by nearly 150 percent in 2020 amid a rise in racist rhetoric about the pandemic.

Lois recalled that amid the rallies in 2020 against Asian discrimination, there was one wine distributor who encouraged her and her husband to avoid associating their Korean heritage with their business. “He said: ‘Coming from experience, I don’t think you should highlight your identity because people aren’t going to want to hear about it.’ And he said it’s too political to talk about heritage,” she recalled. “Of course, we decided not to go with him, and we proved his point wrong, as we now have a big demographic of diverse folks that want to support us.”

Dua shared a similar sentiment about building a business amid the rise of Asian American hate crimes during the pandemic. She explained that after witnessing similar experiences earlier in her life, she no longer wanted to remain quiet. As a result, she put that frustration toward building a company that represents diversity and inclusion.

“As an Asian woman in an industry notorious for exclusion and lack of diversity, I aimed to create a space where we could tell our stories in a big bold way without compromising our fundamental values,” she said. “The Korean concept ‘Nunchi’ has always been one of my favorite words; it means awareness that’s harnessed into actions that promote balance and harmony.”

Dua’s upbringing also inspired her career and work ethic, as she’s a first-generation American born in Queens, New York, to a single mother who immigrated from South Korea. Her community in New York was a multicultural epicenter, and she grew up surrounded by immigrant and family-owned nail salons, bodegas, and Korean churches. Dua’s exposure to entrepreneurship dates back to seeing businesses as a “means of survival, not a choice”, which led her to develop the grit she has as a business owner. “Having witnessed immigrant communities independently adapt and evolve through both industry and personal volatility only taught me from a young age what it meant to be scrappy, when to compromise, and how to persevere,” she explained.

Jewelry company Nunchi was started by Korean-American business owner Jane Dua (Courtesy of Nunchi)
Jewelry company Nunchi was started by Korean-American business owner Jane Dua (Courtesy of Nunchi)

Lois’ parents are also immigrants, as they moved to America from Korea in the 1970s. Meanwhile, her husband was born in Korea, before his family immigrated to Canada when he was a child. Her parents and Dave’s parents didn’t speak English when they moved to another country and started anew, which she said heavily influenced their entrepreneurial spirit and interest in embarking on a new adventure, like moving to Oregon to start CHO Wines.

According to Lois, Dave’s parents and the food they made for him as a child influenced his winemaking skills as an adult. “His mom had a Korean-owned Japanese restaurant for many years, specifically a sushi restaurant,” Lois said. “A lot of the wines that are really acid forward, or clean, go well with sushi, including his sparkling wines and his white wines. We’ve also been discovering how well Oregon Pinot pairs with fermented soybeans.”

While based in Oregon, CHO Wines has had the opportunity to connect with fellow Asian American businesses. Earlier this month, Lois hosted the second annual Oregon AAPI Food & Wine Fest, which celebrates the AAPI communities that create some of the most popular dishes and beverages in the state. CHO Wines is also growing outside of Oregon, with Lois telling The Independent how the business has expanded over the last few years following positive national coverage.

“We’ve been very welcomed and we’ve been distributed in eight different states,” she said of her and her husband’s wines. “We’re also exploring international distribution, such as in Canada, so we’re definitely growing. We started out with 700 cases, we’re at about 4,00 cases now, and that was only in three years.”

NUNCHI is also on its way beyond New York City. Dua noted that through strategic retail partnerships, her company has extended its reach to customers in Australia, France, and Abu Dhabi. According to Dua, part of the expansion is the result of collaborations that the jewelry company has had along the way, with the jewelry maker eager to continue growing.

“Collaborating with renowned brands like Milk Makeup, rapper & R&B artist Audrey Nuna, and Dawang has been instrumental in broadening our presence. Looking ahead, our focus is on further enhancing our cultural influence through dynamic activations in fashion, art, and entertainment, all while prioritizing innovation and design,” Dua added.